Reading is something which most of us on here take for granted. Many of us cannot imagine a world without the ability to read. I do wonder however, how often we pause to consider how we are using this amazing talent.
During the decades which I spent as a teacher in primary schools, my greatest passion, greatest joy and occasionally my greatest frustration, was the teaching of reading. Yes it is possible to teach the mechanics and impart the skills needed to interpret the written word. What cannot be taught is the joy of reading. You can of course teach comprehension in a decoding kind of way, but you cannot teach visualisation, the understanding of ideas, themes, characterizations, conflicts or relationships. I touched on some of these themes in my novel Bear Among the Books.
As an educator I have always followed the Socratic notion that “I cannot teach anything. I can only make people think”. For that reason I believe that it has always been my job to create the environment where questions will be asked, ideas explored and imagination set free. With reading it’s not the technical skill which will enable this, it’s listening to others read, it’s immersing yourself in books, authors, word games and big ideas. Of course that skill is different for fiction and for non-fiction reading. With the former we need to read for meaning while for the latter we are reading for information. Both involve comprehension. Both need thought and both need reflection.
I believe that the biggest difference in skills is not the reading of the words as such. In non-fiction texts it is often the reading “between the lines” which delivers the information. In fictional texts I believe that the important reading is done “between the words”. First of all, think of the difference between the way that an actor reads something and the way it may be read by a non-professional? They will ‘prepare’ the reading, for performance. Often the reader will be guided by the punctuation (‘between the words’) and then they will seek an understanding of the meaning in order to give the words passion and power.
Yes this skill can be taught but it is best learned and polished by total immersion in good quality stories well read by others. Again, as a teacher I employed three techniques which some of my colleagues regarded as time wasting. Evaluations of progress however, regularly showed that during the time the children were with me (Sept – July) their reading ages advanced between twelve and eighteen months.
So what were those magical techniques? First of all I made time to read aloud to them or with them every day. Always reading from texts above their current reading age they were exposed to great books and could aspire to reading them. Secondly, I would occasionally use that time to play audio books, or to emply guest readers so that they heard different styles of reading. The third technique was perhaps the most controversial but also the simplest. Occasionally during quiet reading sessions I would sit among them and read ‘my’ reading book. You have to remember that most of these youngsters never saw an adult reading a book. Worst of all it was possible that they had never seen a grown man reading a book. By seeing ‘Mr. O’ reading his book, they accepted it as a cool thing for an adult to do. It was not just another thing that we made kids do. Of course they always wanted to know what ‘Sir’s’ book was about and so I had another way to share my love of reading with hundred’s of impressionable young people.
So what has all this got to do with adult readers you ask? I constantly hear friends talking about how many books they have read this week. Maybe it’s the ever growing To Be Read pile that is their main focus, or maybe it’s all the unread downloads on their Kindles? As a writer this concerns me. If I have put weeks, months, or even years of effort into writing a book, do I want to hear that you speed read it during your lunch break? Do I want to know that you skipped through it to find the next sex scene or the next time the word cock appears on the page?
When I read a book I want to engage with it. I want to meet your characters and be drawn into their world. I want to be emotionally invested in their story and distracted from my own. If you want to read a collection of words then go read your last shopping list or find a telephone directory. Authors deserve some investment in time from their readers. If I read a good book I measure its quality in two ways; how many times did I look away from the text to ponder what I had just read,? Also how long did the book stay with me after I read the final sentence?If your first action after reading a book is to reach for the next one, what does that say about the one you have just finished?
I want to finish with two anecdotal notes about the quality of reading. Firstly, I am not a good book reviewer so I have the greatest respect for those who can do it so well. I have been the lucky recipient of some great reviews, plus a few that made me wonder if they had read the same book! But, I am an author so of course I would say that wouldn’t I? What I do not understand is the kind of reviewer who reads a book that they would not usually choose to read, only to leave a poor review. I am talking about the kind of review which starts with something like, “I am not a fan of this particular genre but…..”. WTF are you reviewing it if you don’t like that genre/sub-genre?!
He’s exaggerating you say? No I ain’t! Last December I had a bunch of great reviews for my Christmas short, Dear Santa. Dear Dad, One reviewer however, not on Lovebytes, started with “I really don’t like these seasonal short stories” and then proceeded to deliver the only less-than-glowing review that I had. Was I surprised? Not at all but I was left thinking that life’s too short to waste time reading books that you don’t like, so why do it?
My final point regards a large group of people who read beautifully written texts for a living. In my experience however, clergymen are often hopeless readers. As a young alter boy, I witnessed too many priests read beautiful texts with no understanding and no engagement with the meaning of the words. The text is read simply because on each day of the year you open the correct page and read what is prescribed.
When my youngest sister got married, I was honoured to be asked to read the epistle during the service. With the help of the priest they had chosen part of St. Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians, 13) about the importance of love. I had heard this many times before and considered it a bit twee for a wedding but decided to go with it. As soon as I read the passage I realised the beauty of the words. I read it through taking careful note of the heavy punctuation and suddenly the meaning was real. It was not a religious thing, it was just poetry.
The day of the wedding came and I read the prepared passage, speaking it directly to the young couple as a lesson about love as it was originally intended. At the end of the service the elderly priest came over to me to shake hands and thank me. He said that he had read those words for years but this was the first time he had ever understood them.
All I had done was to take some time and to read between the words.